Father Holmes       
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A Memory of W. Holmes (Chemistry)

Many of you who were at WGS during the mid fifties and into the early sixties will remember ‘Father’ Holmes – Chemistry. I was told that his nickname came from the time that his son was at the school and he always called him ‘father’ in public – but I never received any confirmation of this. 

My first experience of FH was as a first year. To a youngster straight out of junior school he made an imposing sight sitting at the front of the Fleming laboratory, surrounded by impressive glass apparatus, a spectrum of brightly coloured bottles (who remembers Traube and Daggers reagent?) and many thick books. He gave the impression of a mighty monarch on his throne instructing his minions, or a mystic with the tools of his dark arts around him. Or, like the conductor of a large orchestra he directed all from his podium. However, he provided a rock solid basis for chemistry and his notes, dictated word for word each year, were comprehensive and, if learnt, would virtually guarantee Chemistry ‘O’ or ‘A’ level. However, it was only later, when I was a laboratory assistant in the Fleming lab that I got to know him much better.

A fellow pupil, Malcolm Reeves and I lived close  to FH (near the Duke of York in Northampton Road), and for a year or more, travelled with him, his wife and his little white dog (Scottie?) to WGS each morning. He was a remarkable individual, every day fighting the pain of his progressive arthritis and I developed a great respect for him and the high hopes he had for his students. 

Rarely, of course, did he ‘walk the laboratory’ during lessons although each ‘O’ and ‘A’ level practical exam he was know to make his way to each pupil towards the end of the exam to ask what they had decided the unknown substances were. Their answers he wrote on a large pad which he carried with him. This could be seen clearly by anyone. (It was quite possible to see what the others in the class had found.) 

He used to tell the story of the annual inspection of the wall mounted water distillation apparatus. On one occasion, the inspector arrived, entered the lab from the rear and walked passed the practical session going on in Fleming to check the still on the wall at the front in order to confirm that it was not being used to distil alcohol. The inspector confirmed all was OK, placed a tick in his book and walked back down the lab and out again. FH would then point out that the practical session was the distillation of alcohol (ethanol) and the inspector had walked passed approximately 14 separate alcohol ‘stills’ all working to full capacity. 

He retired when I was still his laboratory monitor and gave me (and Malcolm Reeves) some of his Chemistry textbooks which have his signature inside - he knew he would never use these again. I still have them - they show a ‘chemistry’ which is totally unlike anything that is taught today – only the molecules remain unchanged! 

Soon afterwards, I think I can just remember being in the Biology lab when Harold came in and said that FH had died from his disease.  I wish I had known him much better, especially when he was younger and fitter. Sadly, I cannot now even remember his first name – I think it was William.  Neil Sinclair  (1958-1964)

Another picture:

For me the equivalent to Spike Jackson was Father Holmes. Now after all these years I still have a vivd memory of him doing these quite elegant experiments in spite of crippling arthritis. Yet all we did was blow air into the gas lines to see the flame collapse .... and us collapse in mirth as well..

To me that exam factory that Wrenn ran led directly to the good life for which thanks!! I suspect we all have dramatically different perceptions of WGS. It all seems a long time ago -- and a long way too since we live in Virginia in the USA.     David Cooper (1951 to 1957)

Further to the first description :

That's a pretty good picture of Father Holmes. Quiet, supportive. a great experimentalist and increasingly handicapped. I also was an assistant making up standard solutions etc. The one mistake he would not tolerate was to take off the bottle stopper and put it down. You had to hold it and put it back on so as to be very sure not to cross-contaminate.

I recall him inviting my parents and me to see him at his home on Northampton Road to talk about University plans. My family had no idea what was involved -- they had education up to fifteen or so, that is all. He gave them the confidence to agree to try for Cambridge. It was an incredible leap! At least when I went I felt that I knew how to conduct myself in the lab even if I was very unsure everywhere else.

David Cooper (1951 to 1957)

David Tall (1952) added the following:  I got to know Bill Holmes quite well as in my last year in the sixth, I taught physics and chemistry for a term and WH gave me his lecture notes to use. They were the notes he took at university in the early thirties!  A very sweet and helpful man. Indeed, I didn't feel it appropriate to go into the staff room and I preferred to stay up stairs with Mr Holmes at dinner time as he had his sandwiches.